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Indy is next, but Newgarden looks to Watkins Glen

Josef Newgarden arrived in Buffalo on Tuesday and sampled chicken wings for the first time during a media event to promote the Verizon IndyCar Series race in September at Watkins Glen International. Between now and then, Newgarden will have other matters to attend to, such as attempting to win this Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 from the middle of the front row.

Watkins Glen and IndyCar Series officials announced two weeks ago that, the series will return to the fabled Finger Lakes road course for the first time since 2010 on Sept. 1-4. The Glen replaces the cancelled street race that was to be held in Boston that same weekend.

While it took Newgarden a few minutes to get acquainted with the flavor of the wings, it has not taken the American-born driver very long to adapt to the high speed of winged Indy Cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Newgarden, of Hendersonville, Tenn., drives the Ed Carpenter Racing No. 21 Preferred Freezer Service Chevrolet-powered entry and narrowly missed winning the pole for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. He had the fastest qualifying effort on the board during last Sunday’s Fast Nine Indy 500 qualifying, posting a four-lap average speed of 230.700 mph with just Toronto’s James Hinchcliffe left to make a qualification attempt. Hinchcliffe bettered Newgarden’s 230.760 effort to grab the pole. Newgarden will start in the second position, sharing the traditional three-car front row with Hinchcliffe and third-place starter Ryan Hunter-Reay.

“I was hoping my qualifying lap would be enough,” said Newgarden, 25. “It wasn’t, clearly, but it was so close. I think my first lap was really what carried my qualifying run. It was a 231.5-mile-an-hour lap and I think I dropped off too much after that where Hinch’s was really kind of consistent. It was slower but it was really consistent. That’s what got him the pole, but for me it was nerve-wracking.

“I think we have a great car for this Sunday. I really do. I think it’s probably the most confident I’ve felt going into a race, which is good. You want to feel confident going into the 500. I think there’s some unpredictability. We don’t know how we’re going to fare against the Honda drivers.”

Newgarden is in his fifth IndyCar Series season, his second with ECR. He is the 2011 Indy Lights champion. He enters the Indy 500 ranked 12th in IndyCar Series points while sporting one top-five and three top-10 finishes. His two career IndyCar Series wins were achieved in 2015.

Newgarden is looking forward to his first career appearance at The Glen later this year. Unlike other veterans on the IndyCar Series circuit who have raced on The Glen’s older surface, Newgarden’s first race at The Glen will be on a newly repaved track.

“I think it’s going to be spectacular,” said Newgarden about. “I think you’re going to see crazy speeds from IndyCar. For me, I hope it’s a little different from what guys remember from the past. Guys like Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, they’ve been there before. They know how that place works. I hope it’s not what they remember so that we all start even again. Maybe I’ll have an opportunity to jump ahead of them.”

Newgarden knows the history.

“I used to watch Watkins Glen as a kid,” he said. “I always thought it was one of the most spectacular tracks. I think it is one of our best tracks in North America. So for me, when I’m looking at the schedule and thinking about where we’re going to race, it was such a thrill to hear that we’re going to go there. I wanted an opportunity to race there and now I get it. I think it’s one of these tracks that needs to stay on our calendar.”

Newgarden also represents a resurgence of American-born drivers now on IndyCar’s driver roster.

“If you watch the Indianapolis 500 and you’re looking for an American to be successful in it, you’ve got great guys that have an opportunity to win like Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, J.R. Hildebrand. There’s a lot of Americans in it and you’re going to see them be very strong. It will be the same when we come to Watkins Glen.”

The opportunity to get back on the IndyCar Series schedule for Glen officials came almost overnight following the recent cancellation of the Boston race. The announcement of The Glen’s IndyCar Series return came May 13.

“It took about 48 hours with Jay Frye (IndyCar president of competition and operations) really helping us out,” said Hamburg native and Watkins Glen International president Michael Printup. “Jay and I both, after we signed the contract, kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Okay, now we have to get to work.’

“There were some challenges but we got it done. We got three months to get it done and put together an aggressive plan. The Verizon IndyCar Series management is helping us now. In a week’s time, we got Josef Newgarden sitting here in Buffalo promoting the race already.”

Newgarden will also compete July 17 in the Honda Indy Toronto.

Watkins Glen has long been known for the customized glass trophies awarded race winners. Perhaps by season’s end, Newgarden will have one of those Glen trophies in his possession and the Borg-Warner Trophy that is presented to the victor of the Indy 500.

“You never get a bad trophy,” said Newgarden. “But the Borg-Warner is a very big highlight and I’ve seen the Watkins Glen trophies and there’re pretty cool, too. It would be a real treat to get a couple of those.”